Photo by Debra DiPaolo
In the latest uproar at Los Angeles Unified School District, no major player has been as public or as shadowy a presence as Genethia Hayes. Since being elected president in July, she has been the board’s public face and the chief purveyor of its increasingly relentless force, a stance at odds with her past as an educator, mediator and proponent of interethnic collaboration. Some see her uncompromising role in dumping Superintendent Ruben Zacarias as flying in the face of her own progressive background, to say nothing of her campaign promises to work out problems with district personnel. Others, however, note that Hayes is merely being the supremely focused, tenacious, get-it-done-and-damn-the-torpedoes operator she has always been — a characteristic that even her admirers admit might also be her undoing.
Even those who believe the district is in dire need of an administrative shake-up wonder if the current shake-up, with Hayes firmly at the helm, is wreaking more harm than good, alienating various political and ethnic factions at precisely the time that they should be coming together. “Amongst Latino leaders, Genethia’s been perceived as a black person who was a crossover, a mediator, but now, sadly, she seems to be totally intransigent,” says Leonor Lizardo, a board member on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), where Hayes serves as executive director. “She’s said, ‘Screw the process.’ This seems way off her values base. She’s going to take this guy out no matter what.”
Onetime political consultant Kerman Maddox gives Hayes and the board high marks for making tough decisions that are clearly at odds with public sentiment. “But they’ve destroyed the reservoir of good will they built up in June,” he points out. “They get a failing grade for political sophistication. A lot of people were excited about them, but in this first test of them as a new, reform board, they’ve failed miserably.”
Hayes hardly characterizes it that way. She does acknowledge now that she and her fellow board members could have handled matters more, well, gracefully. “Let me apologize about the process, about what’s been perceived as an insult to Latinos,” she says in her brusque, rapid-fire delivery. “I mean that. I’m not being cavalier. But people don’t need to have this one-note thing about me being a mediator. When you’re trying to bring about extraordinary change, you can’t mediate. With the district being in such crisis, I can’t sit around and twiddle my thumbs and look explicitly for a win-win situation.”
Hayes’ bold, high-profile moves are taking many aback because she has always fought a certain anonymity. In addition, with a campaign heavily financed by the mayor that trumpeted reform and new ways to do business, Hayes was looking to make a break with black history by seriously running not as a candidate or a veteran political aide anointed by black political elders, but as a concerned citizen with a solid résumé in education work. She engendered resentment that bordered on derision among blacks who not only felt she was acting out of turn, but working on behalf of Riordan and, by extension, a white business power structure that hardly had the betterment of LAUSD’s largely minority children in mind. The idea of Genethia stoked far more ire than Genethia herself, to the point that queenmaker U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D–Los Angeles) reportedly exclaimed at a pro–Barbara Boudreaux rally last spring, “Who is Genethia Hayes, and where did she come from?”
Actually, it would be difficult to find fault with Hayes’ community and professional credentials, at least on paper. She was raised in Texas, where she became an active participant in the civil rights movement. She first worked in LAUSD as a teacher in the ’70s, in the Child Development Division, then developed curriculum for preschool and elementary school students. It was during this time that the seeds of her discontent with school bureaucracy were sown; it was after questioning why the division chose to cut out any academic focus from preschool education, that Hayes was eventually “kicked upstairs” as a curriculum specialist. “I was moved from one place to another,” she recalls. “The moment you begin to question the relevance and correctness of what is going on, you become persona non grata.”
Hayes became well acquainted with unpopular positions, both within the district and within the black community itself. At SCLC, an organization whose staff she joined in 1985 as an educational-projects director, she and former executive director Joe Hicks publicly stood with Latino groups in opposing Proposition 187, the state anti-immigrant initiative, when most black leaders were conspicuously silent. As longtime director of SCLC’s Project AHEAD, Hayes worked to bring together black and Latino parents over educational concerns. As a consultant for the Council of Black Administrators and the Achievement Council, she agitated the district to release damning data that broke down student performance by race. The last time school-district boundaries were re-drawn after the 1990 census, Hayes, attorney Constance Rice and a few other black activists stood with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) — and against a few local chapters of the NAACP — to support the expansion of Latino districts. During the same time, as the Compton public-school crisis was heating to the boiling point, Hayes took black Compton school officials to task for consistently ignoring the needs of Latino students. “Genethia is someone who’s taken courageous stands, who goes against the grain and doesn’t think twice about it,” says Rice. “She does play along, she does attempt to build coalitions, but she never sacrifices action for maintaining the status quo. Her loyalty is to principles and ideas, not to personalities or politicians or special interests — she doesn’t care if she doesn’t get invited to somebody’s dinner.”
Hayes’ determination has a dark side, an unwillingness to move off a point — however ill-advised — once she has settled on it. “She can be a mediator,” says Compton deputy superintendent George McKenna III, a veteran of inner-city school-reform efforts, “but once she exhausts all remedy, she is also very tenacious.” For all of Hayes’ powers of analysis and her admirable work with building cross-cultural alliances with Latinos, much of it appears to have been neutralized by her flat refusal to entertain any notions of restoring Zacarias to full strength, or at least going through the proper firing motions — a stand that has already cost the school board much political capital and Latino good will. Rice admits that the price is proving too high, as do some of Hayes’ Latino supporters who feel rebuffed by what they see as a circumvention of due process, and who are also caught by their own sense of ethnic fealty. “I never expected [Hayes] to be involved in these kind of politics,” says Arturo Ybarra, president of the Watts Century Latino Organization, a grassroots group that, like Project AHEAD, works to unite black and Latino parents. “I’ve known her as an educator, as a person with an open mind, very inclusive. I’m frankly surprised, and very disappointed.” Ybarra adds that he always saw Hayes as championing the causes of people of color at the district; now, ironically, he says she may be bringing them together to join forces against her. That the clearly savvy Hayes failed to anticipate that dynamic, or overestimated the scope of her power and visibility, may be her biggest blunder so far. “Genethia has said, ‘How can the Latinos say I’m against them when I’m one of the few black people who stood up for them?’” says a black associate who asked not to be named. “I told her, ‘Genethia, that’s the problem. They don’t know you.’”
As to the black contingent, the one that spurned Hayes in the first place, it has been quiet, for two opposing reasons — it still has nothing good to say about her, and despite its heated opposition to Hayes during the campaign, it has closed ranks and does not want to publicly disparage a black official. Political considerations aside — if such a thing is possible — it is nonetheless deplorable that blacks, whose children consistently suffer the worst effects of the district’s institutional failure, are not weighing in on the board’s machinations. Rice is probably right in saying that this latest “crisis” is really one playing out among the mandarin elite, not amongst the student masses who have endured crises — lack of textbooks, quality instruction, credentialed teachers — for years. Still, solutions must trickle down from the top, and however good their intentions, Hayes and the board have created turmoil at the top and cut off any flow at all, at least temporarily. The district can’t exactly afford time to recover. Hayes counters that with environmental disaster looming at a new school site in South Gate, she believes she had no choice but to do what she did. “Look, when other public institutions got in such a state — the city, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Department of Water and Power — they started kicking people out,” she says. “We forget about [former MTA CEO] Franklin White.” And while she offers apologies to Latinos for any political insensitivity on her part, she says that painting the issue as largely Latino, or even largely about process, would be a far greater mistake. “To portray this as a Latino issue is to marginalize the rest of us,” she says firmly. “If we fail, we’re all diminished. If we succeed, we’re all enlarged. Latinos have numbers on everyone else, sure, but their stake is no bigger than anyone else’s.” As to process, she throws up this challenge: “If civil rights folks and others could come to me and say, ‘We have a reasonably well-run system, we don’t have poor communities of color in crisis, we do have well-trained teachers — unless there are legions of people saying that, we can argue all we want about process. I wonder,” she adds, a bit caustically, “when Rosa Parks refused to get out of her seat, or when Martin Luther King stood up for the garbage workers, whether they were concerned about process.”
A passionate and unimpeachable argument — but in some ways wholly beside the point. Hayes’ eyes may be on the prize, but her tragic flaw may be the arrogance of not recognizing the ground-level details that make up the path leading to that prize. The board may have been reacting to a specific action in stripping Zacarias of his authority, but it is almost certain that Hayes recognized the symbolic importance of making a big, dramatic move in a moribund district culture that hasn’t produced a big move in the last 20 years. Kerman Maddox says such symbolism is what really resonates – and Hayes certainly knows that. “To the average person, it looks like this black woman took off after this Latino, which can’t do anything but hurt black-Latino relations, which are already frail,” he says. “Genethia may not care at all about Zacarias’ ethnicity, but that doesn’t matter. Perception is reality.” Hayes argues strenuously for herself as an individual — “I am not one thing,” she says — but she doesn’t seem quite willing to compromise that individuality even for the ultimate good of the district, or the public. Joe Hicks, director of L.A.’s Human Relations Commission, once effusively described Hayes as the “the most damn stubborn woman I know,” a description that may haunt her for a while.
“The anger out there is really, really profound,” says attorney Rice. “Latino communities have felt a lack of representation, they’ve felt shut out, they’ve felt injury for the last 15 years. The divide between them and the board could turn out to be a permanent rupture.”